Layers of Life

24th April 2023

First published in Inspirations issue #109 in January 2021, written by Ansie van der Walt

‘The process of making gives me great joy. We as human beings are made up of many layers and experiences. I have, like many other people, had a rich tapestry of life experiences. My health and having a disabled child have affected my creative path, which has meant I have had to press the pause button many times on my career as an artist. But all these experiences have fed into my life and work. My strong spiritual beliefs play a big part in my ability to transform and find joy and colour in the world.’

– Sabine

Sabine kaner works in layers. Layers of fabric, stitches, and colour; but also, in layers of emotions, feelings, identities, and mindsets. Sabine grew up in London in a mixed-race, immigrant family during the 1960s and ’70s. A difficult childhood as a result of racism, poverty and ill health forced Sabine to turn to art for survival and solace. She won her first award for art at the age of five and she has not stopped creating since.

Trained as a fine art printer, Sabine worked with hand and screen printing before being diagnosed with an auto-immune disorder which forced her to reassess the materials she used. She then started experimenting with textiles and stitching. She worked with recycled textiles like repurposed bedlinen, discarded clothes and other donated fabrics using the hand stitching skills gained during a short stint as a freelance seamstress.

Sabine approaches her work through a variety of psychological lenses. ‘I am concerned with the human condition, identity, social and current events, as well as the landscape of the mind. Working in a semi-abstract way, a lot of my work has recurring abstract shapes but also more familiar, identifiable ones. I like to experiment using different materials and layering. Each piece is a one-off stand-alone piece, but at the same time also connects as a series of work and holds a shared relationship to all the other pieces, expressing something of the journey and story that it inhabits.’

Symbolic references, both abstract and recognisable shapes, and a strong sense of colour co-exist in Sabine’s work. She builds her artworks in layers using paint, print, appliqué, deconstructed clothing, and stitching. ‘Texture is important, and I try to recreate it through a variety of threads including wool and recycled materials. Each piece of work starts with ideas that seep into my mind but then often vanish. Memories come to mind that I am continually reassessing. I research by looking at images and do drawings before I start.’

Over time Sabine has become familiar with the qualities of different fabrics and the best ways to work with them. The art of hand sewing is slow and meditative but sometimes requires a bit of strength to pull through the layers of material. ‘Despite the challenges this poses, the whole process is part of the joy of creating. Hand sewing feels like my own personal handwriting in the style of the stitches that I choose. I see each new piece that I create as part of my textile journey, development, and learning process, either through mastering the techniques I already know or learning new ones.’

During the time when Sabine transitioned from print to textiles, she also attended upholstery classes and worked as a seamstress, both of which influenced her choice of textiles. ‘I could visualise the fabrics I worked with in another form. Over the years, like my mother and grandmother before me, I have collected lots of different fabrics including inherited and discarded clothes from family members. I am drawn to the emotional attachment and memories that many of these items hold for me. I have experienced many difficulties that I have had to navigate through my life and using familiar fabrics has created a sense of continuity and consistency. In the last few years, environmental issues have also become a large consideration in my choices of materials.’

‘I begin a piece of work with paint and print, which means I have to take into consideration the colours I want to use right from the start. I usually try to spend a day just printing, using bits and pieces to replicate various textured surfaces, often experimenting at this stage. I use a mixture of acrylic, watercolour paint, and printing for the background. On top of this, I assemble various fabrics, often a layer of felt or boiled wool. I experiment with the deconstructed clothing that I have chosen for the piece, referencing my drawings.’

For the next layer, Sabine transfers her drawing, outlining her stitch work, or attaching shapes and appliqués into which she wants to stitch. Each piece is unique and uses a variation of her techniques. ‘With each composition, I try to challenge myself to learn something new. I am constantly trying to create a balance between colour and the images in my mixed media work, arranging pieces of fabric and temporarily pinning them down. Once I start stitching, it is more difficult to make changes, so I have to picture the final image in my mind.’

Art has always been a way of recording history and telling stories. For Sabine, her work is about issues like mental health, physical health and marginalisation. During the recent pandemic, a lot of these issues have been exposed and have forced society to engage with the reality that many people are vulnerable and do not have the resources to protect themselves and their families. ‘During the pandemic, my concerns have been about the disparities between rich and poor, and how alarmingly insecure work is for so many. I produced a piece of work that tries to encompass all these issues. The recent Black Lives Matter protests have touched me and my family, who live across the USA, the Caribbean, and the UK, deeply.’

‘As a biracial person, I have unfortunately had many experiences with racism, starting from childhood through to the present. It is a complex subject with many layers permeating all aspects of our society. My healthcare has particularly been marred by stereotyping. As a mature postgrad student in social sciences, I am aware of the types of assumptions surrounding race. Some have the aim of protecting marginalised communities but are used by some to compartmentalise people.’

In Sabine’s most recent piece of work, she uses photographs to reproduce the same image multiple times. ‘My idea was to highlight the ‘Repeat’ of the situations that we are still having to deal with, the same issues that have been around for years and years with slow progress and change. With the image, I have also tried to move the work forward in its narrative, clear in the title ‘Unity and Reunion’!’

Another piece of Sabine’s work is called ‘Blended Stitches’. This piece was made from an old jumper that both she and her daughter wore. Her daughter wore it when she was going through some difficult times. ‘I deconstructed the jumper so that it would flank both sides of a drawn and stitched panel of abstract shapes in a variety of colours. I wanted to transform what had been a traumatic time for us as a family to a time when things were much better but also to be reminded of the range of emotions that we experienced.’

In 2018, Sabine was excited to join the Society of Embroidered Work (S.E.W.) as it was an acknowledgement that her work was good enough to capture an audience. As a fine art graduate, it made complete sense to Sabine that stitched art was equal to any other art medium. ‘It is really nice to be part of a community of textile artists. The standard of work is so high that it really spurs you on and challenges you and your skills, encouraging you to want to keep learning. It is also a great resource of ideas and a chance to make further connections with like-minded people.’

Sabine was selected in 2019 to join the international textile exhibiting group PRISM. ‘I had wanted to be part of this group for a long time. The work is diverse and presents itself in 2D and 3D. I submitted work for their next exhibition which is due to be shown in London in 2021. This work was created to highlight the contributions of the Windrush generation to British Culture and society.’

As in her artwork, Sabine’s life has many layers – some visible and some hidden. Some are part of the structure and some are added to create texture, variety, and nuance. ‘Most people’s lives weave in and out of a variety of challenging experiences. My work tries to capture some of this story. Using collage enables me to put many ideas together in one piece. I would like to connect with the viewer through my work by expressing the whole range of emotions that we as humans can experience, from pain to joy!’

Instagram: @sabinemake

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